Frank Lee reviews Russia against the rest: the post-cold war crisis of world order by Richard Sakwa Cambridge University Press Chatham House London October 2017
This publication by the British academic, Richard Sakwa, follows on from his earlier work Frontline Ukraine first published in 2015.
The present book identifies a continuity and unfolding of events which started with the end of the Cold War 1989-91, but which eventually broke down completely in 2014 with the onset of the Ukrainian imbroglio; the situation then settled into a new Cold War stand-off which has lasted to the present time. Sakwa has painstakingly detailed the whole sorry episode, identifying and dissecting the submerged trends which in time vitiated the early euphoria which had been triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Initially the apparent transformation and ending of the geopolitical deadlock between the two super-powers gave rise to hopes of a new world order; there was a mood of cheery optimism widespread amid talk of a new epoch of peace and prosperity. Sadly, however, this elation underwent a gradual cooling. The optimism did not last; the golden age never materialised.
This was, according to Sakwa, largely due to the different interpretation that the Atlantic Community and Russia put of the events in question. A simple misunderstanding? I rather beg to differ on this interpretation; it was, I think more a question of straight machtpolitik and a zero-sum game.
The position adopted by the Russian Federation, as articulated through their spokesman, Mikhail Gorbachov, had interpreted these episodes as a new beginning; a Greater and inclusive Europe whole and free from the spectre of nuclear annihilation and expensive arms races, was now possible.
However, from the outset it was apparent that the US/EU/NATO bloc placed rather a different interpretation on these developments. From the Russian perspective the ending of the first Cold War represented a victory for compromise and the forces of détente; a win-win for all involved. This would be an opportunity for Russia to come out of its semi-isolation and join the West in a new Greater Europe stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Trade and free movement of peoples would be the order of the day. Sakwa points out the Russia was not against the West’s putative liberal order, value-system and international law as espoused by numerous spokespersons in the West. Indeed, Russia wished to join this exclusive club. Russia was to be disappointed, however.
Russia was offered not a Greater West, but membership of the Historical West and even that apparently on subordinate terms. There was no place for Russia in the triumphant Atlantic system certainly not as an equal.’’ Sakwa – p.14
Quelle Surprise! As in 1918 at Versailles, when Germany’s nose was the firmly rubbed into the dirt and reminded of its chastened position, Russia was also to endure a similar fate. But of course, the Treaty of Versailles embittered a vanquished Germany thus preparing the way for new war 22 years later. Some people it seems never learn the lessons of history.
In this respect Jack Matlock US Ambassador to the USSR between 1987-1991 who like J.M. Keynes in his warning book ‘The Economic Consequences of Peace’ before him, opined that ‘too many American politicians looked at the end of the Cold War as if it were a quasi-military victory rather than a negotiated outcome that benefited both sides.’ (Matlock, Super-Power Illusions, p.3 pp.4-6)
Gorbachov’s ‘negotiations’ with the US-led bloc simply led to a string of concessions on his part with zero reciprocity, particularly on the issue of NATO enlargement (see below). Mikhail had been well and truly had and duly retired from the scene. Given the US’s record when dealing with those whom it regards as its inferiors and subalterns, (i.e., just about everybody) Gorbachov’s negotiations with the number 1 global rogue state provided a salutary lesson in the forlorn belief of the triumph of hope over experience. It should be understood that the US does not do partnerships except of the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ variety. Nor does it negotiate, but simply threatens and issues ultimatums.
Time and again Sakwa makes the point that Russia was not hostile to the current global order insofar as they understood it. This world order, in theory at least, involves adherence to International Law, national sovereignty, non-interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, diplomatic protocols the overarching institutions free-trade as well as the recognition of Russia as a Great Power.
The problem, however, was that the Americans and their Petainist vassals in Europe, did not actually practise what they preached in terms of the liberal world order and, in all probability, did not even believe in their own self-righteous bluster. Promotion of Democracy, Human Rights, Responsibility to Protect, Regime Change, Free-Trade, was the so much post-modern wine in the old imperialist bottle. Indeed, as far back as 1948 actually existing US foreign policy as opposed to the comic-book variety, was best summed up by George Kennan then Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department.
We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.
To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
As an aside it should be understood that the Anglo-Zionist empire, uses a strange language that means the opposite of what it should mean. ‘Free-trade’ for example, actually means overtly protectionist policies whereby US corporations are subsidized, granted patents, benefit from government procurement policies, are granted tax exemptions for R&D, benefit from currency manipulation, enjoy the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of control of the world’s reserve currency – the US$ – which in effect means that rest of the world effectively subsidises the US currency and economy, this in addition to unfair trade agreements which disadvantage poorer nations against richer ones.
Russia was acting according to Westphalian foreign policy precepts, the Anglo-Zionist empire was playing by a post-modern version whereby regime change, bombing Afghan wedding parties with drone missiles, openly meddling in elections and internal affairs of sovereign states and orchestrating colour revolutions which promised everything and delivered nothing, were thought of as legitimate instruments of state-craft and foreign policy.
Perhaps the most egregious example being the death of 500,000 Iraqi children brought about by the west’s sanctions applied between the two Gulf wars. According to the then US Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright, this unprecedented carnage was ‘worth it’.
These blatant double-standards of the Atlantic alliance were duly noted by the Russian authorities. Sergei Karaganov, Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs argued that a Versailles peace had been imposed upon Russia and he didn’t mince his words.
… avoiding direct annexations and contributions but continuously limiting Russia’s freedom, spheres of influence, and markets and at the same time expanding its own area of zone through NATO enlargement and its political and economic zone through EU expansion. (Quoted in Sakwa – p39)
Sakwa argues that ‘’this is going to far as there was no intention to punish Russia after 1991, instead all sorts of measures were bring Russia into the Atlantic and broader western community although recognizing the obstacles on the way to Russia’s full inclusion.’’ Sorry, but I don’t buy that. I don’t think that there was ever any intention of Russia being allowed to enter the EU other than yet another Petainist recruit to the US-controlled and militarised European Vichy zone. Russia was the eternal enemy who could only refuse such an offer. This was the obvious implication and had been made perfectly clear earlier by Paul Wolfowitz and became the Wolfowitz Doctrine:
Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defence strategy and requires that we endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.’’
Not much room for ambiguity here.
As a result of the short period of phony war the West’s Cold War establishments and warriors fell back onto their default positions established in the late 1940s. This involved the policy of enlargement, aka containment, aka kicking a man while he is down.
Enlargement and Cold War 2
The policy of enlargement of the NATO/EU geopolitical area in Eastern Europe has probably been the most salient feature and driving force of the New Cold war. Manifestly, the Cold War institutions and elites lacked both the willingness and the ability to even recognise let alone adapt to a changing situation. The ideological nostrums of the first Cold War were set in stone in the Cold War bureaucracies. Moreover, it is bureaucracies that they are driven to grow and expand. This is as true of military organizations as it is of business corporations and state institutions.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 and has since grown to include nearly all European nations. In fact, it is easier to list the countries which are not members: this list includes Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Belarus, and some minor Balkan states. There are also a number of anomalies such as Ukraine, Moldova, Sweden and Georgia who are de facto members but who are not covered by the Article 5 of NATO constitution where an attack on one member is an attack on all. Furthermore, this expansion has occurred despite the winding up of the Warsaw Pact – founded in 1955 – which was disbanded in 1991.
The termination of the Warsaw Pact was not reciprocated by the NATO bureaucracy. In fact, this military wing of the Atlantic alliance doubled in size and pushed forward to Russia’s western frontiers. Concurrently this defender of peace and security also became engaged in out-of-theatre operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. According to Sakwa,
With the end of the Cold War, it seemed that NATO had successfully achieved its purpose, above all containing the USSR could enter an honourable retirement. Instead the organization spent the next quarter century looking for a new role until it returned to fulfil the main function for which it had been created – containing Russia.
This is a familiar scenario. Organizations when becoming increasingly defunct must justify their existence since careers, promotions, various grants and other subventions as well as ideological bete noires are integral to the ongoing maintenance and justification of the organization. NATO is no different in this respect. From a means to an end the maintenance of the organization becomes an end in itself. The Iron Law of Oligarchy – Robert Michels 101
NATO faced an existential crisis of purpose. Yet in the end the Atlantic Security system survived and after 2014 assumed ramified features as it shifted toward a policy of hard containment.
This policy of confrontation and provocation – ‘hard containment’-was a ‘policy’ not universally shared in US Realist International Relations circles. Turning again to George Kennan who made his opposition abundantly clear in an interview with Thomas Friedman in 1998:
I think that the Russians will react quite adversely, and it will affect their policies. I think this is a tragic mistake. There is no reason for this whatsoever. No-one was threatening anyone else … This expansion would make the Founding Fathers turn in their graves. We have signed on to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.
I was particularly bothered by references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Communist Soviet Regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.’’ (quoted in Sakwa – p.80)
Worse, the alliance – NATO – expanded willy-nilly to the Russian border, bringing in nations combining minimal military capabilities and serious potential disputes with Moscow. None had ever mattered to American security, but Washington handed out security guarantees – Article 5 – like hotels place chocolates on pillows: everyone got one—including Poland. (Doug Bandow at the National Interest).
Quite so. But does anyone really believe that the United States will fight a war against a powerful nuclear adversary over Estonia? This is what American Foreign policy realists including John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt cogently argue. The trouble is that the Neo-con crazies with the media and deep state in tow are running the show, not the Realists.
Truth be told, the Neo-cons have been running the show since the 1990s. On Clinton’s watch NATO was transformed from a defensive military alliance into an offensive military alliance under American control. It went on to include not only Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but also countries such as Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, and Slovenia, among others, thus pushing its military infrastructure right up to the Russian border. Recent attempts to draw Ukraine and Georgia into NATO are only a continuation of an aggressive policy of expanding NATO and of isolating Russia, initiated by Clinton administration in the late 1990s.
Interestingly Sakwa had a case of moderate Damascene conversion over the issue. To wit:
NATO is clearly a collective defence organisation (sic-FL). However, NATO activism in Bosnia in 1995, (i.e., bombing-FL) Serbia/Kosovo in 1999 (i.e., more bombing-FL) at the Head of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from 2001 served as a warning to Moscow of the heavy price that recalcitrant states could pay.
I love the term ‘’NATO activism’’ which included the dropping of depleted uranium bombs during the 78-day air offensive against a civilian population which had no air defence. Sakwa might also have mentioned, in passing. the bombing and destruction of Libya by NATO. The real point is that NATO is in fact a flag of convenience for the US and as such can never be a defensive organization. Its object is conquest and/or subjugation and ultimately the setting up of a global empire. That is not a defensive organization.
The US led globalized order ‘’requires permanent war, military interventions, endlessly succeeding one another as the only means to submit the peoples’ of the periphery to its demands (Samir Amin)
Enlargement policy was bound to lead to trouble. It seemed self-evident that the US-led NATO war machine was backing Russia into a corner. At the Bucharest Summit, 2008, NATO Allies welcomed Ukraine and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership and agreed that these countries ‘’will become members of NATO.’’ Please note: not possibly, not probably, but ‘Will’ become members.
They also agreed that both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations and welcomed democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia. The Membership Action Plan (MAP) is the next step for the two countries on their direct way to membership.
Somewhat predictably the Russo-Georgian war followed in short order, after Sakashvili ordered a Georgian invasion of the disputed territory of South Ossetia. That was a warning shot across the bows of NATO. Russia’s red line had been established. Ukrainian or Georgian entry into NATO means war. It should be added that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is still on the table.
I’m sure Sakwa cribbed the following from J.A.Schumpeter who noted that the caste of professional soldiers in ancient Egypt – the Hyksos – had found themselves at a loose end when peace dawned but their warlike instincts needed to be appeased by the authorities. The war machine “Created by the wars that required it, (now) created the wars it required.”
In the event enlargement ultimately precipitated the conflict of the sort that it was designed to prevent … that NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence created a number of conflicts (see the Georgian War above and also the frozen conflict in the Ukraine since 2014).
Designed to prevent!? Since when did military build-ups, and exercises, sometimes conducted a few hundred meters from a sovereign nations’ borders by a military alliance consisting of 29 states, and, in addition, the siting of anti-missile defence systems in Romania and one to be shortly operative in Poland in the 2018 become a policy designed to prevent conflict? It is rather like saying the that Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 was designed to assuage French concerns regarding the western movement of the Wehrmacht. Presumably the Germans, like NATO, would argue that their actions were taken to forestall French/Russian aggression.
Somewhat understated in this account of NATO enlargement has been to part played by the EU. As part of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU formally aligned its defence and security policies to NATO. Which in essence means that the EU no longer has an independent foreign policy and gets its orders from the other side of the pond. The EU became the civilian wing of NATO through diplomatic and propaganda outlets like the Eastern Partnership, led in tandem by Sweden and Poland (of course, Poland, who else) – in the unprepossessing duo of Carl Bildt and Radoslaw Sikorski. The object of this outfit was to make as much mischief as possible in the Soviet Union’s former sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. The EU’s political kow-towing before US hegemony was no better exemplified than during the Ukraine crisis.
Instead of a vision embracing the whole continent, it (EU) has become little more than the civilian wing of the Atlantic Security alliance … The drift toward the merger with the Atlantic Security system left it bereft of autonomy and policy instruments that really mattered – maintaining peace on the European continent …it failed to restrain the war party in Washington or to articulate a strategy that was more nuanced an in keeping with its proclaimed normative values.’’ (Sakwa – Frontline Ukraine pp.227/8)
Europe’s relationship with Russia was always problematic. Instead of achieving a Europe free of dividing lines enlargement renewed the division of Europe a fortiori. This is easy to explain – as already stated, Europe did not, at least after the second gulf war, and possibly even before, have an independent foreign policy; the US occupation had become invisible. In the American geopolitical straightjacket the EU have failed to develop an autonomous and transformative foreign and security policy, and instead amplified Atlanticist rather than Continental concerns. This prostrate position lead Sergei Lavrov to remark:
That we for previous years over-estimated the independence of the EU, and even big European countries. So, it’s geopolitics.’’ (16/12/2014 – Interview France 24)
The EU was thus a lost cause, without autonomy or sovereignty in thrall to US strategic interests and policies and ruled by a self-serving Petainist-Quisling elite. The idea of a Greater Europe was now defunct and Europe firmly under the thumb of Washington. ‘’The paths of Europe and Russia are seriously diverging and will remain so for a long time … probably for decades to come. It was time to forget these beautiful dreams.’’ (Igor Ivanov) Russia’s destiny was now to become the leader of a greater Eurasia stretching from Belarus to the Chinese border.
ENTER THE DRAGON
Sanctions were imposed upon Russia as a result of the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. By this time Moscow had given up the ghost of trying to reach any agreement with the Atlantic alliance. ‘’The Kremlin had come to see the EU as little more than an American puppet.’’ In many ways the EU and Russia were economically interdependent. But the mutual advantage in trade gained by the EU and Russia was to a large extent nullified by the US imposed sanctions. In prioritising US interests over EU interests, the euro-elites were inverting Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum ‘’A nation does not have permanent friends and allies – only permanent interests.’’ Russia was therefore to develop alternatives to the American dominated Atlantic community.
The Russian pivot to Asia was proclaimed in Putin’s state of the nation speech of 12 December 2012. (Sakwa – p.277)
The goal was the establishment of a multi-polar world order; a parallel Eurasian configuration would develop following a disconnection from the uni-polar dominance of the West. This parallel Eurasian bloc would not challenge the principles institutionalised by international society (e.g. the UN) and it would expect the West to do likewise, in theory and practice. An alternative system of world order appeared to be in the making increasingly bypassing the Historical West.
Russia and China were closing ranks against the hegemonic ambitions of the US-NATO juggernaut. The establishment of The Shanghai Cooperation – an organization and process based upon the Russian-Chinese strategic alignment – began as far back as 2001 and included the central Asian ‘Stans’ together with Mongolia. Later this group of 5 were to be joined by Pakistan and India. Afghanistan and Iran became observers, dialogue partners included, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey. The SCO has evolved in a number of areas: regional security, economy and culture but is still very much a work in progress. The SCO has been supplemented by the BRICS alliance, the first summit of which took place in Yetakerinburg in 2009.
The BRICS encompass 30% of the earths landmass, 43% of the global population, 46% of the global labour force and 30% of global GDP. An anti-hegemonic alliance was beginning to crystallise. China in particular with a growth rate 3 times that of the US is now in purchasing parity power the largest economy in the world. Moreover, the kingpin of US global dominance – the global reserve status of US$ – is now under attack from a number of countries who now trade in their own currencies. These include Russia, China, and Iran. Venezuela is now trading its oil in Yuan, and even the Saudis are under pressure from China to do likewise. China sees a new world order with an oil benchmark backed by gold. … China’s move will allow exporters such as Russia and Iran to circumvent U.S. sanctions by trading in yuan. To further entice trade, China says the yuan will be fully convertible into gold on exchanges in Shanghai and Hong Kong. This is the beginning of the end of the ‘petrodollar’ first negotiated with the Saudis by Kissinger in 1974.The US$ is a fiat currency, the Yuan is – or soon will be – a currency backed by gold; which would you rather hold? This represents an unprecedented challenge to the US-imposed world order. The bottom line is this.
If the prospects of China becoming a super-power are real, then the materialization of any solid Eurasian alliance comprised of China, Russia, Iran and India along with the smaller Asian states, and augmented by non-Eurasian powers – Brazil, Venezuela – would certainly give rise to a mega power. Such a mega-power would dwarf the US demographically, territorially, economically, politically, militarily and industrially. (Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya – The Globalization of Nato p.279)
Of course, the irony is that this turn of events has been precisely due to ignorance, myopia and hubris of US foreign policy. Bad Karma indeed!
The creeping universalisation of American law and practices of universal jurisdiction represented a new type of power that threatened the sovereignty of states everywhere. In response, counter-hegemonic movements gained vitality and dynamism … In all of this Russia was in the vanguard. Its attempts to join a transformed West had ended in failure … the practices of the Historical West were reinforced … Russia (thus) became one of the most active proponents of the creation of a non-West. (Sakwa – Ibid, p.328)
At one stage I would have said that Sakwa’s book was primarily aimed at an academic audience and lacked the polemical edge of his earlier work, Frontline Ukraine. He seemed to be over scrupulous in taking a middle position – usually deemed to be ‘objective’ in academic circles – and used a terminology specific to the International Relations industry that might have put off some readers. Using terms like ‘axiological’, ‘hermeneutics’, ‘monist’, ‘problematise’ seemed akin to the sort of opaque language customarily found in sociological treatises and will not have endeared him to a broader audience. However, in the later chapters he seems unable to stop himself slipping into a more partisan and direct commentary which shines through a great deal of the academic verbiage which might have easily been dispensed with.
These are minor asides, however. Overall this is a generally excellent piece of research and deserves to be widely read – and reviewed. But there’s the rub, it has been largely ignored.
In terms of a conclusion to what has been said and written, the geopolitical chips are still in the air. But undeniably there has been and will continue to be a massive and irreversible shift in global geopolitics; we are witnessing the birth pangs of a new epoch. In terms of W.B.Yeats’ famous oxymoron ‘A terrible beauty is born’. (Easter 1916)
Frank Lee February 2018